I had a chance last month to see Rango, the new film by Gore Verbinski (who most recently helmed the three Pirates of the Caribbean films). Johnny Depp voices the titular Rango, a lonely but imaginative chameleon. In the opening minutes of the film we see that Rango, living alone in the small glass box owned by a suburban family, has dealt with his solitude by inventing an enormously rich inner life for himself. But his carefree life of imagination is violently interrupted by a car-accident that leaves him stranded on his own by the side of the road. Rango eventually makes his way into a tiny town called Dirt, populated by a motley assortment of animals. Through some good luck, Rango manages to kill a hawk that’s been menacing the town, and so finds himself appointed sheriff. But that quickly puts him in conflict with the sinister forces attempting to control the town for their own devices, and Rango will need more than just imagination to keep his head attached to his shoulders and, just maybe, save the town and win the girl.
Rango is a slight, though endearing, fairy-tale fable of the Old West. All of the familiar Western archetypes are there, just pleasantly twisted by having the roles played by various animals. The film is chock-full of references to other movies. There’s the over-all Chinatown plot, of course (no incest, just a businessman attempting to use a drought to his own nefarious purposes), along with a ton of little winks and nods to various other cowboy films. (Many of which, I’m sure, went right over my head, since I can’t say that my knowledge of westerns is that deep.) These aren’t really in-your-face gag-references, like you’d see in the Shrek films. Thank heaven for that! No, these are more subtle references that add a fun layer of texture to the film’s story. (Well, mostly subtle. The character who portrays the Spirit of the West is just who you’d expect it to be. But that scene is still so much fun that I couldn’t possibly complain.)
Rango is the first feature-length animated film produced by George Lucas’ incredible visual effects company, Industrial Light and Magic. As such, no surprise, it looks incredible. The film has a very different look from that of the Pixar films — the stylization of the animation leans less towards cartoony simplification and more into hyper-detailed weirdness. That’s not to say it looks better or worse than a Pixar film — just that it looks different. And, again, thank heaven for that! Pixar is not going to ever be beaten at its own game, so it was wise of the artists at ILM to … [continued]
It’s been a long wait since last summer, but one of my favorite series from 2010 finally returned with new episodes this past Sunday night — David Simon (The Wire) and Eric Overmyer’s Treme!
Season two picks up about six or seven months after the events of the season one finale. It’s been fourteen months since Hurricane Katrina, but the city of New Orleans and its denizens are still struggling to get back on their feet. Many who left the city after the flood have returned, but so too have many additional problems — including a sharp uptick in violent crime.
“Accentuate the Positive,” the season two premiere, is a leisurely paced re-introduction to the series and its large cast of characters. There are no earth-shattering developments or plot twists in this episode, but I adored the gentle way we’re dipped back into the experience of life in New Orleans. You’re got to pay attention to keep up with everything, as the show is constantly cutting from one location to another and from one character’s story to the next, but it’s all very skillfully put together. Watching the episode unfold, we can see the interconnected fabric of the lives of all of these struggling men and women. Sure I want to have seen more of every one of these characters, but we’ve got the rest of the season for that! And it’s a testament to how well-written and well-performed the show is that there wasn’t a single character or story-line that I felt was a waste of time, resenting the time that we could have spent following another character. No, every one of these characters could be the lead in their own show, and that’s a key ingredient to the success of this ensemble.
I wrote, above, that the characters are “struggling,” and sure enough they are — pretty much everyone one of them. But as with season one, this episode manages to remain fairly up-beat and full of life, despite the heavy subject matter. There’s humor to be found, and joy, amidst the heartbreak. That balance of tone is one of the reasons I love this show so much.
And, of course, there’s the music. This episode was packed to the gills with amazing music of all styles and types. It’s the music that the makers of this show use, primarily, to set the scene and to illustrate for the viewer the changes in location. It’s an extraordinarily clever approach, and I’d say it’s become this show’s trademark. It’s the music, as much as the plot developments or the character arcs, that propels Treme along from start to finish, and it provides an endlessly rich backdrop for … [continued]
After a long, long, looooong wait, a new full-length episode of Star Trek: Phase II has been released on-line. It’s called Enemy: Starfleet! and it is dynamite. Watch it here! If you’re any sort of fan of Star Trek, this is well-worth your time.
I’ve written before (here and here) about the amazing fan-produced series Star Trek: Phase II (formerly Star Trek: New Voyages). Masterminded by James Cawley, this series (created and produced top-to-bottom by people who love Star Trek, working for no money whatsoever) is an attempt to create a fourth season of the classic Star Trek series (which was famously cancelled after three seasons), continuing the adventures of Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and the gang. This isn’t a reboot like J.J. Abrams’ movie, or any sort of modernization of the classic Trek concept. No, this is a loving attempt to replicate the look and feel of the 1960′s sets, costumes, music, etc., and to create full-length episodes that look and feel and sound like they really could have been episodes from a fourth season of the original Star Trek!
In that attempt, James Cawley and his incredible group of collaborators have been astoundingly successful. The production values of these episodes (Enemy: Starfleet! is the sixth episode created, not counting the series’ original pilot) have improved by leaps and bounds with each new installment, to the point now that they are simply jaw-droppingly amazing. Every aspect of what one sees on-screen is flawless. The look of the bridge. The sound effect when someone opens their communicator or fires a phaser. The music. The costumes (both the Starfleet uniforms worn by the Enterprise crew as well as the attire of the guest-stars). The attention to detail is astounding. Take a look at Peter Kirk’s quarters, for instance, and be dazzled by the United Federation of Planets emblem on his bed-spread, or the familiar-looking bottle seen on the shelf behind his bed.
In many respects, Enemy: Starfleet! looks even BETTER than the original Trek ever did. The visual effects, for instance, are amazing — a universe more advanced than what was possible in the 1960′s. But what’s really neat is that, while the effects are much more elaborate and far cooler than anything seen in an original Trek episode, all of the effects still feel RIGHT. They integrate organically with the rest of the episode. A large reason for that is because, even if we’re now able to see things we never could before, all of the details are correct. The Enterprise moves just the way it should (even as we’re getting to see the old girl engage in far-more spectacular outer-space combat than we’ve ever seen … [continued]
I have fond memories of watching The Natural with my father as a kid, but it’s been quite a number of years since I’d seen it last. When I saw a blu-ray of the film on-sale at Amazon for just a few bucks, I snatched it up. What fun it was to revisit this fine film!
In Barry Levinson’s 1984 ode to baseball and Americana, Robert Redford plays Roy Hobbs. As a young man he is clearly gifted with amazing skills at the game of baseball, and there doesn’t seem to be anything that can stand in his way to become the best ball-player to ever play the game. But one moral mis-step cuts his dreams short. Roy gets a second chance sixteen years later, when as a middle-aged rookie he comes back to the majors to help a losing ball-club on it’s quest for the pennant.
There’s a dramatic through-line to the film, of course, but The Natural really is a fairy-tale. That had always been by recollection of the film, but I was still surprised, re-watching it now, just how prominent those fairy-tale aspects of the film are. Watching the film, you might notice that the dangerous females all wear black, while the honest, noble heroine wears white. But it cuts deeper than that. The film is, at essence, a morality play. It’s clear that we’re meant to understand that young Roy Hobbs is struck down by the woman in black not out of some random chance, but because he chose to break faith with his girlfriend back home (Glenn Close). Then, later in the film, during his come-back season, when he takes up with the duplicitous Memo (Kim Basinger), his seeming invincibility at the plate suddenly ends. In the world of The Natural, only the morally true can succeed.
I found this puzzling as a kid (I didn’t really understand why one moment Roy Hobbs could hit nothing but home runs, while the next he was striking out, and I was totally befuddled by the motivations of the woman in black), while now as an adult I find it to be endearingly sweet. Such a simplistic, moral story could collapse into silliness, but the film is carried along by strong direction by Barry Levinson and some great performances by a high-wattage cast.
At the top, of course, is Robert Redford as Roy Hobbs. Other than Christopher Reeves’ performance as Superman in the late seventies and early eighties, I’d be hard-pressed to come up with such a striking representation of truth, justice, and the American way. The performance works because Mr. Redford — as did Mr. Reeves — plays the role with such straight-faced honesty and enthusiasm, with … [continued]
Though I think the quality of his films has dipped considerably in the last decade or two, I remain an enormous Woody Allen fan. So I tip my hat to Juliet Lapidos from Slate Magazine who just watched every single Woody Allen film and summarized what she’s learned. It’s a wonderful piece — well-worth your time. (I’m also pleased that to learn that, after her massive re-watching project, she concurs with my long-held opinion that 1997′s Deconstructing Harry was Mr. Allen’s last truly great film.)
Here’s also a fascinating ranking of Mr. Allen’s films into categories (from the “masterworks” to the “bad”). There’s not too much I can disagree with about this listing! It’s pretty spot-on, I think. A few quibbles: I think Hannah and her Sisters and What’s Up Tiger Lily should be bumped up to “great,” as should Play it Again Sam, Deconstructing Harry, and Zelig. Bananas deserves a spot in the “Masterworks” category, and I’d bump The Purple Rose of Cairo down one notch to the merely “great.” And Scoop definitely needs to be shifted down into the “bad” category. OK, I guess I did have some objections! But still, over-all, a terrific list.
Speaking of obsessive-compulsive types, check this out: a complete guide to every single sneaker Jerry Seinfeld ever wore on Seinfeld. Very cool (and just slightly frightening).
So, Rise of the Apes (which was originally called Caesar) is now Rise of the Planet of the Apes? Wow, the title just became simultaneously way more awesome and also way, way stupider. I can’t wait! (By the way, did you watch the new trailer???)
I’m not sure what makes me happier: that we’re actually getting a new Planet of the Apes movie this summer, or that in New Zealand right now they’re actually, finally, for-real, filming Peter Jackson’s two-film adaptation of The Hobbit. Have you seen the first new production diary? I have tingles. I’m not kidding! Peter Jackson was a true innovator with the video diaries that he posted back in the day, chronicling the making of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and then King Kong, and I have fond memories of devouring those whenever they were released during the pre-production and production of those films. It makes me so happy that they’re finally back, and that The Hobbit is at long last under-way. CAN’T WAIT FOR MORE.
Are we really just a few weeks away from Thor? I really want that movie to be good, but I’m a bit nervous. This very positive early review has me optimistic, though!
I’ll be posting a piece soon with my thoughts on the last few DC animated projects … [continued]
I cannot believe that that there really is a new Planet of the Apes film being released this summer. I simply find it difficult to wrap my mind around that gloriously outlandish fact. But look! Visual evidence!!
Can’t wait.… [continued]
It seems to me like Paul, the new film from Simon Pegg & Nick Frost, has been flying far under the radar. That’s too bad, because the two men (who, along with Edward Wright, were responsible for Spaced, Shaun of the Dead, and Hot Fuzz) just might be the finest comedy duo working today. They’re each great individually, but there’s something magical that happens when the two get together. Paul doesn’t reach the comedic heights of Shaun of the Dead, but it’s pretty great nonetheless.
Pegg plays Graeme and Frost plays Clive, two geeky Brits who have traveled to the US to attend the San Diego Comic-Con and then take a driving tour of the locations of famous UFO sightings. The last thing they expect is to actually encounter a real-live extra-terrestrial: the fast-talking, good-times-loving alien named Paul who is on the run from mysterious government forces. Will the nerds be able to help Paul escape the men in black and meet up with the space-ship sent to take him home?
The movie hits the geek jokes a bit hard in the early-going (making fun of the costume-wearing crazies who attend Comic-Con is a pretty easy joke) but the film quickly settles into a nice rhythm… and then builds towards a frenetic, hilarious finish. I like comedies that are also able to get audiences to invest in the adventure story being told (I hold up Ghostbusters as a prime example of this), and I was quite pleased by how engaged I was by the film in the third act, when the chase was really on.
Although I missed Edgar Wright, it’s hard to complain with someone as talented as Greg Mottola at the helm. Mr. Mottola directed Superbad and Adventureland (a vastly underrated film that I just re-watched last week and loved as much as the first time I saw it). The man is a keen comedy director, giving his cast room to play but also keeping the film moving at a fast clip.
One could play a fun game connecting the dots from Mr. Mottola’s past work to see how he assembled such a terrific ensemble to surround Frost and Pegg. From Superbad, he brought in Seth Rogen. Mr. Rogen voices the alien Paul, and it’s brilliant, inspired casting. Once you hear Mr. Rogen’s voice emanating from the short, big-headed alien, you know what type of a film you’re in for. Rogen really sinks his teeth into the role, and his line delivery is impeccable.
By the way, I should also note that the visual effects work on Paul himself are incredible. This isn’t a movie that I expected to dazzle me with state-of-the-art visual effects, but … [continued]
I’m here at last with the long-delayed final installment of my Spielberg in the Aughts series with a look at Mr. Spielberg’s 2005 film, Munich. This was pretty much the only Spielberg film from the last decade-and-a-half that I’d unabashedly loved when I first saw it in theatres, and I’m pleased that I found the film to be just as strong when re-watching it last month.
In September, 1972, eleven Israeli athletes at the Olympic Games in Munich were held hostage and eventually murdered by members of Black September, a Palestinian terrorist group. Following those terrible events, the film postulates that an Israeli Mossad agent named Avner (Eric Bana) is asked to lead a small, secret group of Israeli agents assigned to hunt down and assassinate the men who the Israelis hold responsible for the Black September plot.
I think that Munich is one of, if not the most, mature and emotionally devastating films that Steven Spielberg has ever made. There’s no question that Mr. Spielberg is one of our preeminent masters of the pop crowd-pleasing adventure film, and he’s also shown great skill at tackling more serious topics in films like Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Amistad, and more. In all of those films, though, the lines between good and evil were very clearly drawn. What fascinates me about Munich, and what gives the film a power equal to if not surpassing those films I just named, is that this story is all about shades of gray. There are no clearly defined heroes or villains in this film, and while one might enter the film with pre-established sympathies for either the Israeli or the Palestinian side in these events, the film wisely avoids painting either side as entirely heroic or entirely villainous.
As Avner and his team set about tracking down and killing their assigned targets, we see not only how Avner and his men (who each begin the assignment with varying degrees of idealism and toughness) begin to feel the mental and moral effects of their bloody work, but also how their actions — however justified they (and some audience members) might feel them to be — serve to extend the cycle of violence. When Avner’s team kills a target, it’s not long before another terrorist group strikes back against Israeli targets, and so on and so forth.
Note that the film’s making a point about how violence serves only to beget violence is a subtly — but critically — different message than saying that the actions of this Israeli team are entirely without justification. I don’t think the film gives that message at all. I remember reading some criticisms of this film, from Jewish … [continued]
This could be the greatest thing I’ve ever seen ever:
A few days ago, Devin Faraci wrote a great piece over on Badassdigest.com (a really phenomenal site that I can’t recommend highly enough) about the terrible ending of the classic Bill Murray film, Stripes.
Mr. Faraci is right on the nose — the last 30 or so minutes of Stripes are really quite terrible. Now, I must admit that I’m not a huge fan of the first two-thirds of Stripes, either. I think I saw the film way too late in life to really connect with it the way other children of the eighties did. Despite my long-held love for Bill Murray’s movies of the 1980′s (epitomized by my near fanatical worship of Ghostbusters), somehow I missed Stripes throughout my childhood — I only finally saw it when I was in college, and by then I just didn’t find it all that funny.
But Mr. Faraci’s article got me thinking about other good films undone by their endings… and wondering if there any films, as Mr. Faraci asks, whose first two-thirds are so good that I forgive their weak ending?
(Let me state that, obviously, SPOILERS LIE AHEAD for the films under discussion!!)
Let’s begin with some films that start off strong but are, in my opinion, completely ruined by their terrible endings:
No Country for Old Men — I was totally engrossed in this tense, beautiful film for much of its run-time, but the ending totally sunk my enjoyment. After following the character of Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) throughout the film, and totally investing in him, I couldn’t believe how that character was completely abandoned and ignored in the final few minutes of the movie. The film’s title — No Country for Old Men — and the way the end of the film focuses on Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) indicates to me that the Coen Brothers intended the film to be the Sheriff’s story, not Llewelyn’s. But the movie never earns that. It never shows us the message given by its title, and Tommy Lee Jones’ monologue in the last scene. What was it about the death of Llewelyn Moss that so affected Sheriff Bell? For a man who had clearly been involved in other cases that involved murder and death, what was it about this particular event that shook the Sheriff so deeply? We’re never told, and ultimately, as a viewer, I didn’t care too much about Sheriff Bell — I was invested in Llewelyn! And having the end of his story be cut off by the finale really disappointed me.
A.I.: Artificial Intelligence — Not that the first two-thirds of this film were so perfect to begin with, but had the movie ended … [continued]
I’m always intrigued, but a bit worried, when I hear that another Philip K. Dick story is being turned into a movie. Many adaptations of Mr. Dick’s work have been pretty horrid, and even the ones that are great (such as Total Recall and Blade Runner) tend to diverge pretty far from the source material. But the promise of one of Mr. Dick’s short stories being used as the basis for the script, along with an intriguingly talented cast, piqued my interest in the new film, The Adjustment Bureau.
Matt Damon plays David Norris, a young, hot-shot rising-star politician who, nevertheless, has just lost the race for the New York Senate seat. In the moments before he’s to give his concession speech, he meets a beautiful young dancer named Elise (Emily Blunt) in the bathroom. She’s hiding out from security in the men’s room because she just crashed a wedding in the same building. Sparks immediately fly between the two, and she inspires David to give a surprising off-the-cuff speech that almost immediately begins to revive his political career. When the two meet again soon thereafter, bumping into one another on a city bus, it’s clear that they have a powerful connection. But almost immediately David finds himself confronting a mysterious group of men who seem determined to keep the two apart. These men are the Adjustment Bureau. They claim to be the instruments of a higher power, helping to keep people on their proper paths. They warn David that he and Elise are not fated to be together, and that if he does not let her go, the consequences will be disastrous for them both.
For a film based on a story by Philip K. Dick (his 1954 tale Adjustment Team), the film is actually surprisingly light on the science fiction. It’s really more of a fantasy about belief and faith and fate than it is a sci-fi adventure. That’s not in any way a criticism. The film incorporates the fantastic with a fairly light touch, keeping the focus squarely on David’s real-world emotions and his struggle to find a way out of the impossible situation in which he finds himself.
The glimpses we were given into how the Adjustment Bureau functions were fun — just tantalizing enough to leave us intrigued but not bogged down by exposition. I loved the look of their books (which map individuals’ destinies), and I thought that their system of traveling incredible distances in the blink of an eye through doors that they could turn into portals across the globe was cool (even if the thunder of this device was stolen slightly by Monsters, Inc. — still, Mr. Dick’s story came … [continued]